Frances Tiafoe, Ben Shelton share brotherly bond ahead of US Open quarterfinals
The friends are the first Black American male duo to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam since the Open era began
NEW YORK — After securing a fourth-round victory at the 2023 US Open over Caroline Wozniacki, tennis player Coco Gauff decided to share an entertaining story to the press involving two of her closest friends.
Those same friends just happen to be the first Black American male duo to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam since the Open Era began in 1968: Frances Tiafoe and Ben Shelton.
In that amazing anecdote, Gauff tapped into her inner promoter to hype the upcoming boxing-like showdown between Shelton and Tiafoe, their first match against each other.
“After my match, Ben and Frances were in the cooldown area and it was just really just cool to see us all there,” Gauff said. “And obviously, the conversation, they already started the trash talk. I’m indifferent on who wins, but I did say that Frances was a little bit upset because I said Ben had the better outfit than him. Frances told me at the French Open that he had something crazy planned for US Open and I said, ‘You’re wearing confetti.’ ”
It’s that comfort in camaraderie and competition that makes the growing bond between Tiafoe and Shelton all the more enthralling, for hard-core tennis fans and especially for the part-time watchers of the sport who usually pop in only when the US Open and Wimbledon come around.
Tiafoe’s and Shelton’s stories are reflective of the Black tennis experience in America, which has never been higher in the post-Serena Williams era.
Tiafoe, 25, who ascended to stardom after his parents’ well-documented journey from Sierra Leone to Maryland, has become a top 10 player after being a world-class junior beset with the pressures of instant expectations. Shelton’s pathway couldn’t be more different. His father, Bryan Shelton, an ATP Tour veteran whose highest ranking was 55 in the 1990s, was an important bridge, with MaliVai Washington, for the next generation of Black male tennis figures before James Blake’s arrival in the 21st century. Despite those contrasts, they are proud of their Black experience in tennis and in life.
Tiafoe told Andscape about the significance and excitement of their first showdown, fittingly taking place in a stadium named after the first Black male tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who was first African-American man to win the US Open.
“Ben has wanted to play me, talked about wanting to play me, at the US Open for a long time,” Tiafoe said. “So he’s going to be superexcited. He’s going to come out with a lot of energy and I’m going to have to tame him down, try to be the vet and get the win.
“But it’s going to be good, it’s going to be a great atmosphere. And I think a great representation for people of color, right? You know, two people of color playing in the quarterfinals, a huge match on Arthur Ashe, so a pretty monumental moment. I’m pretty excited to compete against him and hopefully it’s a great battle.”
Tiafoe was asked about Gauff playfully expressing her preference for Shelton’s choice of on-court style at the Open.
“Yeah, yeah, she’s all loving Ben’s light-skin energy,” he said with a laugh. “I think my outfit is much better, you feel me?”
Shelton, the powerful 20-year-old lefty, beamed at the prospect of playing someone he considers a spiritual sibling in Tiafoe.
“Frances as a player is electric,” Shelton said. “He’s kind of been a brother to me since he’s been on tour, and a guy who’s kind of told me he believes in me from my first ATP tournament [July 2022 at the Atlanta Open]. Just a great guy off the court but on the court, a nightmare to deal with. He does so many things well. One of them being engaging the crowd. He’s just one of the guys where it’s must-see TV. You want to watch him play all the time. He kind of has that Carlos Alcaraz effect. And especially here in New York, this is his place where he really wants to show up.
“So, to be able to play against him in the quarterfinals on Arthur Ashe is something that’s pretty special.”
When asked about their brotherly banter, the former University of Florida standout gleefully documented how far they take their trash talk.
“Everything,” Shelton said. “There’s not a time he walks by me in the locker room and doesn’t say something about, ‘Man, I’m looking way better than you in this sleeveless shirt. You got to get to work on those shoulders, buddy.’ Maybe that’s the last one, but we always have some good banter there.”
With the career of fan favorite Gaël Monfils of France winding down and the retirement of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France and Jamaican-German Dustin Brown, Tiafoe and Shelton, Michael Mmoh, Chris Eubanks and talented teenage Black Frenchman Arthur Fils represent what tennis needs in the next wave of Black male tennis stars.
Big games, big diverse personalities.
Shelton and Tiafoe are kind to any person they interact with, whether it’s NBA superstar Jimmy Butler or a regular fan. They truly do enjoy engaging with people and that is evidenced by how Tiafoe and Shelton want the crowd to match their energy and give them the NBA and NFL fan atmospheres they thrive in.
If ever there was a match that unlocked all the exciting elements of a night at the world’s largest tennis stadium, Tiafoe vs. Shelton is that match.
And no matter if you are impartial about this matchup, like Gauff is, or favor one player, those who watch this special quarterfinal will be the real winners.